Vietnamese refugee gives back as a naval officer

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Navy News / March 5, 2018

By Darlene Blakeley

It has been a long and remarkable journey from Vietnamese refugee to Canadian naval officer.

Lieutenant-Commander Kim Poirrier, a logistics officer working with the Directorate of Naval Strategy in Ottawa, credits the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) for shaping her into the strong, independent and confident woman she is today.

“My journey in the CAF as a naval officer has opened doors for me, given me exposure to travel, and the ability to work at a professional level that I never dreamed possible,” she says. “I have a great sense of pride in wearing my uniform, not only for my own achievements, but also for what my uniform represents.”

Life has not always been easy for LCdr Poirrier. She was eight years old when the communist regime of the day began to persecute the ethnic Chinese entrepreneurial class in the former South Vietnam. Her parents owned and operated a successful plastics enterprise and their fairly wealthy family of 11 lived in a beautiful three-storey house, with a nanny and servants. All of this changed suddenly in 1979 when they went from riches to rags.

Her family was stripped of everything they owned and resettled into a detention camp along with other wealthy Chinese business families, to work and farm the land.

“This was a life sentence of hardship and starvation,” LCdr Poirrier explains. “My father had to make the most difficult decision of his life – risk the lives his wife and nine children to escape from Vietnam for a second chance at life, or stay and risk starvation and even worse treatment from the communist government.”

Eventually her parents, along with a number of other wealthy families, got together and paid many pieces of gold to get a fishing boat in order to escape Vietnam. The family survived near-death experiences during the escape, including starvation, piracy and a terrible storm. After a series of harrowing events they arrived in Malaysia, where they joined other refugees waiting for immigration officials from western nations to offer sponsorship. After a few months they were accepted by Canada, sponsored by the Assumption Parish Catholic Church in St. Walburg, Sask., a town of 500.

“They welcomed us with open arms,” recalls LCdr Poirrier. “Thanks to Canadian generosity and compassion, our family was given not only a second chance at life, but also the security to enjoy our lives and prosper.”

Having been given a fresh opportunity to explore a new life for herself, LCdr Poirrier wanted to give back to her adopted country.

“As Canadians, we are privileged to live in a society that values human rights and that has a democratically-elected government that enables us to enjoy freedom of speech, association, religion and equal opportunities. To truly appreciate this privilege is to give back.”

LCdr Poirrier and her family thrived in Canada, and she went on to attend university. It was there that she decided to join the Naval Reserve in 1991, and later went on to join the Regular Force navy. Over the years she has deployed on humanitarian missions; served a tour of duty in Afghanistan; worked on multimillion dollar capital projects as a senior cost analyst; and provided logistics support to overseas missions, contributing in her own small way to international peace and security.

“The military has much to offer as a career, an employer of choice and a unique lifestyle,” she says. “It is made up of ordinary Canadians who discovered they can achieve extraordinary results with some training, the right support and confident determination.”

Married to Dave Poirrier, another CAF officer, with two daughters Kassandra and Jamie, LCdr Poirrier’s busy life includes helping both her local community and the country as a whole.

“My philosophy is to live life to the fullest, have the compassion to help those in need, and give back to the community as much as possible,” she says. “I’ve been active in a number of capacities wherever I have lived.”

As a volunteer, LCdr Poirrier has worked with the Salvation Army, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, food banks and women’s shelters. She regularly takes part in speaking events, including Asian heritage celebrations, Canadian citizenship ceremonies and recruiting initiatives.

She is particularly active in promoting minority and cultural issues, as well as issues that affect women.

“I am passionate about women’s issues and promoting gender equality. I want to be a role model for my kids, and also the younger women who seek my mentorship,” she says.

In particular her deployment to Afghanistan gave her a deeper understanding of the plight of women in certain cultures.

“It opened my eyes to the status of women in that part of world. I was inspired to become active in the fight for gender equalities and the advancement of women.”

In the future she hopes to represent the CAF by participating in a United Nation’s initiative to increase women’s contributions to peace and security.

Fitness is also important to LCdr Poirrier and she holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She volunteers with a non-profit organization to teach kids and also helps organize martial arts and self-defence classes for the National Defence Workplace Charitable Campaign. One of her personal goals is to work on her Second Degree black belt, in order to be able to teach self-defence to disadvantaged women.

LCdr Poirrier is proud to be a member of the CAF and highly recommends it as a career choice for women looking for challenges and adventure. Not only did it help her grow as a person by providing a wide range of experiences, it also gave her the chance to further her education.

“Since English was my second language, it was hard enough to do a Bachelor degree,” she explains. “I never intended to go higher. But it was difficult to pass up this type of opportunity for a higher education paid for by the CAF. It was hard working full-time and going to school on my own time, but I did it. It was an incredible feeling of accomplishment when I walked across the stage to receive my certificate. Best of all, my family was there to celebrate this achievement with me as the first child in our family to get a Master’s degree.”

Through the hardship of her early years, LCdr Poirrier has gained a unique perspective on how the past shapes who we are as individuals.

“Life does not always turn out as planned, but it is what you learn from it and do with it that will make you who you are today,” she says. “My experiences in the military have certainly challenged me. Over the years, I’ve exceeded personal limits that I never could have imagined overcoming and I’ve achieved more than I ever dreamed possible. Whether you decide to join the CAF or not, as a proud Canadian and as a woman, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities available to all of us in Canada and take bold action toward achieving your dreams.”